Pro Wrestling, even at its best, does not come remotely close to the lofty heights of The Wire, or Mad Men, or any other number of brilliant cable dramas. But it does have something those shows can't offer: it keeps going. It's moving in real-time, with you. The serialized medium of the business, when it's used well (which is too infrequent, to be honest), can produce great human drama, real emotional stakes, and nuanced characters.
I watched wrestling as a kid, but lost interest around 1998. Aside from a six-month spell in 2006, I only started paying attention to (i.e. watching YouTube clips) wrestling again in late 2014. I knew nothing of NXT, I knew nothing of its women's division, and I knew nothing about Sasha Banks. Since then, I've absolutely gone full mark, but I still had never reviewed the origins of the character. I largely knew her story, but I hadn't fully experienced it. I wanted to know what made this performer so fucking assured.
Last weekend, I watched nearly every single match and promo during her entire NXT run. (I did not include her main roster run because there's just not enough of it to assess and she currently lacks an individual story, though that will hopefully soon change.) And after that marathon, I can safely say that Sasha Banks is really good at this whole wrestling thing. I spent 16 hours specifically watching her wrestling story, and didn't grow tired of it.
The title of this piece comes from (of all people) Byron Saxton's commentary during the NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn championship match versus Bayley:
"When Sasha first came here, she was that Bayley. She was that innocent girl who just tried to fit in. But it wasn't until she evolved into The BO$$ is when she had serious success."
The story and performance of Sasha Banks is not just—to borrow from Max Landis' "Wrestling Isn't Wrestling" viral video—"fucking great." It's fucking amazing. If Kevin Steen is "Mr. Wrestling," then Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado is undeniably "Ms. Wrestling." Judging from the collective reviews of Cagesiders, I'm far from the only one to think that way.
I cannot adequately describe just how much I enjoy Sasha Banks on my TV. I have, and will, sit through hours of absolute dross just because I know she'll appear at some point. I came out to my friends as a wrestling fan by posting a picture on Facebook of me wearing her shirt. I wore her shirt around for just about an entire weekend—in New York City!—without any shame. The campus of Columbia University; classic old Harlem bars; Hipster beer dens in Williamsburg; a key lime pie dipped in chocolate on a stick store in Red Hook; Chinatown in Flushing, Queens—you get the idea. Simply put, she makes wrestling cool, which is the rarest talent any sports entertainer can have.
Here's the only way I can put it: I love Sasha Banks. No, not Kaestner-Varnado (though she seems a delightful person), Sasha Banks. I love her in the same way that a person loves Omar, Peggy Olson, Andy Dwyer, or Starbuck. This character brings me legitimate joy (and frustration, when someone disparages her or books her poorly) and makes my day better. That is a very, very special thing.
From Participant to Player
Sasha Banks debuted on NXT December 12, 2012, in a match against Paige. Seeing it now, three years later, is nothing short of surreal. It's Paige versus Sasha Banks, yes, but not Paige versus Sasha Banks. Her theme is generic bland face (and they went through several others until Sky's the Limit). She first comes on TV with a big, cheesy smile on her face, and does a little spin before bubbly bouncing down the entrance ramp. (Compare that youthful naivety to this, from February 18, 2015—her first appearance after winning the NXT Women's Championship.)
Despite the blandness (which is to be expected on a debut), there are a few things that immediately stand out. Her actual wrestling talent—and confidence in it—is readily apparent. As is her love for the straightjacket hold, which she actually makes look painful. It's not a stretch to say she uses a straightjacket in just about every single match, frequently taunting her opponent (since her heel turn) while it's locked in. But it's the way she mocks Paige and the viciousness behind a massive single slap that point at her character to come.
Something else that stands out in her early NXT matches: commentary consistently puts her over. Tom Phillips, 1/2/13: "There's a tremendous amount of hype for Sasha Banks." Tony Dawson, 1/23/13: "Sasha Banks... is on a meteoric rise here in NXT." William Regal, during his spell on commentary, consistently made a point of praising her. April 3, 2014: "I will go on record and say that Sasha Banks is the hidden gem here in NXT ... she's somebody who will be a force to reckon with the years to come in WWE." July 3, 2014: "She's something special."
Clearly the brass knew they had a talent. So the first storyline they put her into was ... a secret admirer angle. I'm not kidding. During January and February 2013, she got three anonymous letters espousing love for her. But upon reading the third Audrey Marie (who I legitimately had never heard of until watching this segment) attacked her from behind, revealing it was her all along and she was mad Banks had stolen her spot while she was out injured.
That absurd story, and the ... inconsistent ... commentary (seriously, they mentioned Snoop Dogg is her cousin every match and then Regal would do a bit about how he just called Snoop Dogg the other day, and no I'm absolutely not making this up) show how far not just Banks, but NXT as a whole, has come. I'd never really watched any of it before October 2014, and it doesn't seem like I'm missing out a ton. There's some fun stuff, and it's neat to see Sami Zayn, Bayley, and others when they first started, but the things that NXT would later be cherished for—most especially, the quality of its women's division—were not exactly prevalent.
Banks' early face run is, in a word, uneventful. And this isn't through the benefit of hindsight: she mostly lost in four-to-six minutes long, technically sound (her wrestling skills, even then, were miles above any in the division other than Paige and Bayley) matches, without much in the way of story or development. Worse, she frequently resorted to overly high-pitched shrieking and stereotypical hair pulling or the rapid succession of weak, catty diva slaps that have been ubiquitous in the WWE women's division for a very long time. It's notable that since summer 2014, she has done this maybe twice, instead exchanging the WWE style-slaps for actual strikes. (She does, of course, still use the single massive slap she used in her debut, to very good effect.)
But it was that very meh, drawn-out drifting in her NXT career that eventually set the stage for her heel turn on September 11, 2013. A week before, Summer Rae (who to my surprise actually was an integral part of the NXT women's division) chastised her:
"Face it, you're irrelevant... You should be following me... I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get there... You're gonna have a nice, clean match [with Paige], and you're gonna lose. Because you don't have a backbone. If I were you, I'd find one. Get it together, Sasha!" (Seriously, Summer deserves a fucking statue for this promo.)
The match with Paige, of course, goes exactly how Summer predicted. (Worth noting that Full Sail went into business for itself barely two minutes into the match, chanting "We Will, We Will, Rock You!" and attempting to start a wave. Sasha Banks was about to make her heel turn, and they were doing the wave.) Afterward, Banks is beside herself, distraught at another failure. Paige attempts to console her but is shoved aside. As the then-NXT Women's Champion walks away, there's a moment of hesitation before Banks steams after her from behind, eventually using a barrage of diva slaps and then a neckbreaker to lay the champ low. As she stands over Paige in the center of the ring, she nods to herself several times, realizing that Summer was in fact right: Sasha had just convincingly put the champ down, something she'd never come close to achieving prior. The point is pronounced even more when, as she walks backwards up the ramp from the ring, that deviously malicious smile creeps over her face for the first time.
Though commentary would later retcon the beginnings of the BFF (claiming Banks created the group), she was very much second fiddle to Summer Rae. During the promo announcing The BO$$ persona, Banks does not even speak—and actually goes weeks without speaking, before finally confronting Charlotte and Bayley on November 6, 2013 in a backstage promo. Though her in-ring trash talking picked up and her heel mannerisms kicked into overdrive, the cost of her turn was being forced into the common WWE rest-hold style of heeling. While her psychology was always solid, her offense was not sufficiently damaging for someone who displayed such a virulent mean streak—and her neckbreaker finisher was very mediocre.
Breaking Up and Breaking Out
It was not until May 1, 2014, that the Bank Statement was used, against Bayley (these two had a ton of matches together in NXT—someone absolutely should do a write-up of the entire feud); the iconic double kneedrop to a prone opponent in the corner was only first used May 21, 2014.* But more than just her signatures were unveiled over this time period: she began to commonly stamp on opponents hands, overtly disrespect them, and generally work at a higher pace with flashier spots while more deliberately targeting specific body parts (usually the back and arm/shoulders, to set up the crossface).
Everything was clicking: next-level heeling abilities, an innovative and strong offense, and a compelling character. All that was needed was a chance to craft her own story, as there was no doubt Sasha was poised to breakout in the second half of 2014.
The July 3, 2014 breakup of the BFFs gave The BO$$ an opportunity to chart her own path for the first time in NXT. To say she ran with the chance is a dramatic understatement, as her trajectory since then has been nothing short of stratospheric. Within months she was far and away the best female wrestler in NXT (and by extension, WWE as a whole). Barely over a year later she is offering a very good case to be the best pro wrestler in the world.
I think this requires emphasis: she's arguably the best pro wrestler in the world. At 23 years old.
It may be a bit much to ascribe so much value to a theme song, but really: the first time Sky's the Limit was used, before an August 28, 2014 match versus Bayley, I marked out, hard. My notes literally read, "SKY'S THE LIMIT!!!!!! OMG THIS IS SO MUCH BETER SHE'S HERE, THE BOSS HAS ARRIVED" The lyrics are absolutely on point with her character arc: "Had a dream I, hadn't made it // There's nothing dragging down me now // Cause a girl gonna push it all out the way // Destined to break in, I found my way yeah // Now ain't nobody gonna take it // Cause a girl gonna push 'em all out the way." She had grown from a good but timid babyface, liked but never loved, to the division's brash, dominant queen.
Taken verbatim from my notes on her October 9, 2014 match with Becky Lynch: "She's absolutely here, we just haven't realized it. In hindsight, one sees it. But in the moment it's hard to recognize how good she had become by this point."
It is clear that Banks absolutely relishes playing a mischievous, cutthroat, arrogant heel. Leading up to her title feud with Charlotte in late 2014, she did use some chicken heeling as well, but as her success grew this trait slowly went by the wayside. She frequently ran away, at least to the outside of the ring if not all the way backstage, during her initial bouts with the then-champ. This was almost entirely excised from her persona by the turn of the year.
In the entire WWE, only Kevin Owens is as good a heel as Sasha Banks. Here's her shooting Bayley's headband at Charlotte during a tag match. Here's her nonchalantly kicking Bayley in the back (I used this above, but I absolutely love it) while the Huggable One is on the mat. Here's her running down Ric Flair, calling him a pathetic old man and mimicking his signature "Wooooo!" and strut. Here's her mocking The Nature Boy to his face while holding his daughter in a straightjacket. Here's her brutally targeting Bayley's injured leg: note that she kicks away the crutch first, an awesome dramatic visual. Here's her initially refusing referee Drake Wuertz' attempt to raise her hand in victory after winning the title and yelling, "I told all of you!" at the Full Sail crowd.
It's hard to go from good to great, or great to outstanding. With two different slaps to Bayley, she demonstrates one way how she did just that: on October 23, 2014, and during the NXT TakeOver: Brookyn title match August 22. Both slaps are brutal and elicit strong crowd reactions, but the addition of mocking Bayley's wacky wavy dance in Brooklyn makes it so much crueler. This reaction, right after her slap, is the look of someone who absolutely loves being bad.
These split second moments, these tiny things, are the difference between a great wrestler and a world class wrestler, and Banks nails all of them. Her offense, as noted above, packs a wallop, but Banks goes further and adds malicious intent via vocal expressions. These noises are the sounds of someone who wants to hurt you.
She gets pro wrestling.
The Champ Is Here
There's lots of discussion lately on "elevating titles," making championship belts appear important and worth chasing. (A common recent remark is that Seth Rollins has failed to do so as WWE World Heavyweight Champion—though his booking should be the first culprit there.) If you want to see a quintessential example of elevating a title, look at Sasha Banks' reign as NXT Women's Champion. She put on two match of the year candidates (and her Fatal 4-way title win is likely an honorable mention)—including what seems to be the favorite, gave commanding and center-stage performances every time she was in a ring or on a mic, and made every one of her appearances must-watch TV. During her reign, she made the NXT Women's Championship the most valued title in the company. And giving that rub to Bayley, who she has a very long history with dating back to early 2013, in Brooklyn, in that match, was the perfect way to drop it.
But I'm getting well ahead of myself. Even the first few seconds of her title reign are exceptionally played. Rather than wildly celebrate or scream after transitioning from an absolutely brutal looking crossface to a crucifix, she sits on her knees, breathing hard, with a look of exhaustion, elation, pride, and more than a hint of shock on her face.
That expression—again, we're talking immediately after the three count—sold the intensity of the match and it sold the intensity of her pursuit for the title. Most wonderfully, it sold the character realizing she'd achieved a benchmark that, despite all her boasting, she wasn't quite sure she'd ever reach. It's a look that makes you wonder where the line is between Banks and Kaestner-Varnado. It's immersive. It's heartfelt. It's significant.
Banks, like all excellent wrestlers, wastes nothing and always acts with purpose. There is not a moment on screen when she's not emoting, either verbally or via body language. Her very first match after winning the title was February 18, 2015, against Blue Pants. It is immediately evident how little Banks thinks of her opponent, and demonstrates that disrespect when pulling out of a pin attempt at a two-count. When Blue Pants taps to the Bank Statement, she refuses to release the hold, only finally slamming Blue Pants' face into the mat.
But Blue Pants was hardly a threat. Her erstwhile ally, Becky Lynch, presented a more difficult obstacle. So much has already been said and written about Banks' two match of the year candidates at TakeOver: Unstoppable and TakeOver: Brooklyn, so I'll try to be brief. Moreover, by mid-May 2015, Banks was clearly the finished product—even if it took these two matches to cement her excellence.
Though Banks claimed to have "made Becky," early in the match she is forced to scurry away from an armbar, with the first real fear of losing her title written on her face. The two had an incredible technical wrestling match at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable—and if we're being honest, it is probably (slightly) better than Brooklyn in that regard. Both constantly worked their opponents' arms, with Banks' offense coming across at points as appearing legitimately disturbing—even Corey Graves, who loves to hate everything Becky Lynch, said "it was hard to watch." The Bank Statement eventually gains Banks the submission victory, but not before some classic mocking.
Similar to her reaction to winning the title in February, Banks sells the moment freakishly well. Referee Drake Wuertz attempts to raise her left arm in victory, and she refuses with a grimace on her face, selling the damage that Lynch caused with her armbar. As Wuertz moves to raise her right, she slightly nods and mouths, "OK."
Lynch was not fully over as a face until after the match, which shows just how much Banks helps her opponents look good. Were it not for main roster call-ups, it is quite possible Lynch would have won the title in Brooklyn. While that too would have been an excellent moment, it was absolutely better for Bayley to go over.
There's no denying it: the NXT Women's Championship match in Brooklyn was special. Barely a few minutes into the match, very loud, dueling chants of "LET'S GO BAYLEY" / "LET'S GO SASHA" erupted for nearly a full 30 seconds. Wisely, both competitors seemed to briefly slow to allow the moment to percolate. Hearing those chants ring through Barclay's reinforced the spectacle and added additional weight to the match. It would not have surprised if the crowd couldn't muster much more—this was heading into our fourth hour in Barclay's, with very little cooldown time throughout the night.
But Banks and Bayley were determined to give a good show, and boy did they ever. Sasha eagerly targeted Bayley's broken right hand to devastating effect, eliciting this reaction face from referee Danilo Anfibio. Oh yeah, then she did a somersault plancha over Anfibio, prompting loud "Holy Shit!" chants. Of course, this story was more than just awesome moves: it was nothing short of a masterclass in heeling that even started during the introductions.
But there was one moment of this match that was wrestling psychology God mode: this piece of absolute ring genius. For a brief second or two, I legitimately wondered whether Banks would win. A poison hurricanrana off the top rope (!) and a second Bayley-to-Belly erased that thought. As Becky and Charlotte entered the ring to celebrate with Bayley, I and many others began yelling, "Curtain call! Curtain call!" It was the climax of an unbelievable year in the NXT women's division. The picture of the four giving their "four horsewomen" signs is an iconic image, one that will be remembered and cherished for decades to come by the performers, WWE, and fans worldwide.
An aside on the "Sasha's rachet!" chants, that I think needs to be made a lot more: this chant is absolutely, 100 percent, racist (and sexist, for that matter). Don't believe me, or think I'm being a SJW? Look at the top definition for the word on Urban Dictionary. And for your punchline, look at the user name of the poster who provided that definition.
The "ratchet!" chants started October 23, 2013, literally immediately upon The BO$$' debut in her regalia—so quickly, in fact, that it almost makes one think it was started by audience plants. It is directed at Sasha for asserting herself, for maybe putting on a bit of a front to mask low self-confidence. The few times the word is used for other characters—Tyler Breeze and Dana Brooke—are ironic: Full Sail is mocking the characters exaggerated attitudes by using a word they don't believe them to be. But the chants directed at Sasha, at least initially, are absolutely, 100 percent sincere. (Once it just became "a thing" for NXT crowds, it's easier to excuse people using it—they don't think about its real meaning and impact.)
Let's think outside the fourth wall, briefly. As soon as an August 14, 2014 match versus Bayley to determine the number one contendership begins, a loud "Sasha's ratchet!" chant starts up. Do you think the look on her face is coming just from "Sasha Banks"? Usually, the character always screams back, "I'm not ratchet," or, "Who's ratchet now?" While Banks had no response on this occasion, it seems plainly obvious that Kaestner-Varnado is thinking, more or less, "Go fuck yourselves," with every justifiable reason.
Seeing that expression makes her trolling of Full Sail during the contract signing for her NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn title match versus Bayley that much better. (Actually, this whole segment was golden, from her reactions to Bayley's speech to Regal's face after Banks rips the Full Sail crowd—note also that Bayley appears on the verge of cracking—to the absolute joy she took in putting them in their place.)
These chants are hateful, they're demeaning, and they're gleefully, loudly, chanted by the crowd at a young black woman busting her ass to be, literally, the best in the world. It's an incredible testament to Kaestner-Varnado's will that she absolutely showed everyone who's BO$$—and you can plainly see the determination to do just that written all over her face in the above linked photo.
We should stop chanting, "NO SHE'S NOT" in response to "Sasha's ratchet!" The callback should be "YOU ARE RACISTS."
Sky's the Limit
Sasha Banks, if you haven't already noticed, is my favorite wrestler of all time. It's bittersweet in a way, knowing that I have already found my all time favorite wrestler (that it just can't get any better, for me—I'll probably love other characters, hell, I do love The New Day and Kevin Owens ... but not this much) and witnessed—from about a distance of 50 feet, luckily—not just the probable match and moment of the year or best ever women's wrestling match on American soil... but my forever favorite wrestling moment.
Actually, potentially my forever favorite moment in any performance or event I have or will witness.
I didn't actually cry during the end of the Bayley-Sasha match, or during the Curtain Call. I came close, but didn't break. But every time I watch it now, tears inevitably trickle ever so slowly down my face—shit, I'm welling up just writing these words—because I remember how incredibly special it was to be in Barclay's that night.
I'm certain friends and family scoff at my interest in wrestling—it doesn't exactly fit my archetype of hyper-intellectual, international affairs obsessed, culture snob. And that's OK! Because you know what? The story of Sasha Banks matters to me, and no one can ever take that away.
Not too long ago, Banks worried that a potential mediocre match would harm the prospects of the women's division. We can't do anything about the booking, but I think I speak for, well, everyone, when I note that your fans know your capabilities and won't ever abandon you. Who else would snatch edges for our amusement?
Sasha Banks' future is beyond bright, which she herself foreshadowed all the way back on January 30, 2013, in one of her first solo promos: "I feel like the sky's the limit for me here." Is it possible that the title of her theme is directly referencing such a long ago claim? With just about any other wrestler I'd say it's coincidence. Sasha Banks is clearly not any other wrestler.
Thank you, MKV, for giving me—all of us—the gift of Sasha Banks.
*This post has been updated to correct the date of first use of the the double knees.